Daily Archives: 14 April 2020

Operation Donar Begins, 1942

From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 127-128:

Virginia’s daring breakout of the Mauzac “terrorists” caused uproar at Nazi High Command and led Hitler to unleash a brutal crackdown in France. It made clear that the Resistance was now a significant threat and that French semiautonomous rule in the southern zone was no longer sustainable. Repeated attacks on factories, railway trucks, German cars, power lines, and a Lyon recruitment office also proved to Berlin that Pétain’s administration, for all its promises, could not be trusted to destroy the enemy within. So the Third Reich would now lay the groundwork for a full occupation, ordering Vichy to issue five hundred French identity cards to the Gestapo to help them infiltrate secret Allied networks across the Free Zone. Under Operation Donar, named after the Germanic god of thunder, the Nazis planned to honeycomb the cities of the south with double agents to root out and eliminate the remaining terrorist cells. The terms of the 1940 armistice stated that the Gestapo were to intervene only in the presence of French police, but the Germans now just arrested and tortured virtually at will. Lyon was their primary target. “The pot was simmering,” as one SOE historian has put it, “and it would soon boil over.”

They made it an urgent priority to track down those responsible for Mauzac as well as the notable recent upswing in the effectiveness and frequency of sabotage. Both the Gestapo and the Abwehr now harbored suspicions about the American consulate in Lyon, where Virginia was still a frequent visitor, and kept it under close surveillance. The two security services of the Reich were bitter rivals, however, and competed against each other in pursuit of the greatest prizes. For now its success with breaking SOE codes—thanks to Sergeant Bleicher and La Chatte—put the Abwehr in pole position. It had deduced that the target was either English or Canadian and a woman; a woman with a limp—la dame qui boite or Die Frau die hinkt—called Marie Monin. But the Abwehr favored a methodical approach over the Gestapo’s preference for wholesale arrest. Bleicher would not move in until he was sure who she was and who she was working with. He would also wait until he could get his hands on one of her wireless transmitters, so that he could play Funkspiel with London in her name. By the beginning of August he had a plan to bring her down—and disrupt the British war effort—and just the man to carry it out. It was to be a pivotal month.

Meanwhile, the Gestapo’s most notorious investigator—who would within a year be awarded the Iron Cross (reputedly by Hitler himself) for torturing and slaughtering thousands of résistants—was also taking a personal interest in Virginia. Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie, reared by an abusive father who had been severely mentally and physically damaged in fighting the French at Verdun in 1916, was not yet based full-time in Lyon. But he was already consumed by an obsessive desire to crush SOE, seen by the Germans as the backbone of the whole underground threat. Dozens of Gestapo officers were intercepting suspect signals coming out of Lyon and conducting waves of arrests and constant day and night raids from a plushly carpeted suite of offices on the third floor of the cavernous Hôtel Terminus next to Perrache station. They knew they were fast moving in on the center of the terrorist cell. Someone would break down under torture; Barbie would make sure of it. The Limping Lady of Lyon was becoming the Nazis’ most wanted Allied agent in the whole of France.

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